Downtown Vancouver enjoys new vibrancy

Economy has made rents more affordable for entrepreneurs

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 

From her Main Street office, Lee Rafferty, executive director of Vancouver’s Downtown Association, looks out on a scene that’s been years in the making.

Shoppers stroll from antique shop to antique shop, pausing to look at displays of local art at galleries along the way. Up the street, crews are transforming an empty block into a rock-climbing gym. After work, Rafferty might see a different crowd heading into the city’s downtown core for a drink or a movie.

The city center is an increasingly vibrant place to be, she said.

Ironically, the hardships of the past few years have created new opportunities for smaller downtown businesses. The recurring development pattern is common in the revitalization of once-stagnant areas, Rafferty said.

The view out her window is the result of hard work by subcommittees of her 120-member group, which has been following through on a strategy developed by a hired consultant last year.

Flower baskets suspend spots of color from street poles throughout the downtown and volunteers have spent three Saturdays planting 101 trees to soften the hard edges of the urban streetscape. Restaurants have moved seating to sidewalks. Property owners are starting to invest as well, thanks in part to a new incentive that allows building owners within a 15-block project area to take advantage of a $100,000 pot of state grant money to renovate storefronts.

"Our downtown is going to be terrific. It is terrific,” Rafferty said.

Rafferty said the improvements throughout the sector are designed to draw Main Street visitors from the cluster of activity surrounding Esther Short Park.

To draw those pedestrians east through downtown side streets, “We are accentuating those corridors with art, flowers and with trees. And we will be doing it with the facade improvements,” Rafferty said.

Some merchants say the foot traffic has already increased into Main Street stores and restaurants.

The area is home to a growing cluster of kitschy antique shops, said Kimberly Shults, owner of Swoon Antiques Salon, at 1006 Main St. She counted at least seven antique stores within a five-block radius. Among them: Save the Planet at 605 Main, Most Everything at 108 West Ninth and Divine Consign at 904 Main.

“I’ve had people coming from Damascus, Ore., and farther away,” Shults said. “People say, ‘These are the type of stores we used to go to in Portland to find the hip stuff.’”

The downtown core’s cluster of art galleries, night clubs and its budding microbrew industry also are signs of rebirth, Rafferty said.

Rachel Fitch, a former Vancouver resident who moved to Portland, said she’s been won over by the changes.

“They cleaned up this area so much that I really like coming downtown for once,” Fitch said. She and her fiancé, Matt Reynolds, often ride their bikes downtown from Portland’s St. Johns area to get coffee or dinner, she said.

Though Rafferty is enthusiastic, she is also realistic about recent news that affects the downtown economy.

The economic meltdown that started in 2008 all but emptied many small, 1,500-square-foot retail spaces downtown.

In March, Vancouver-based Burgerville confirmed September plans to close its iconic downtown hamburger stand on the southeast corner of Mill Plain and C Street.

In May, PeaceHealth, the new corporate parent of Southwest Washington Medical Center, rejected a potential headquarters space in the 10-story Bank of America building. PeaceHealth’s employees said they favored east Vancouver’s Columbia Tech Center.

PeaceHealth’s office will employ approximately 467 workers who now will eat lunch, shop and go out for after-work drinks in another area.

The loss illustrates her group’s importance in helping develop downtown’s economy, Rafferty said.

“Our work is much more than a flower basket program,” Rafferty said. “Our part of the work is to help create the kind of downtown that’s vibrant, a place that companies want to locate.”

But the vacancies put downward pressure on property values, which eventually made the rents more affordable to entrepreneurs.

In some cases, these new shops were started by victims of Clark County’s persistently high unemployment rate, Rafferty said.

With affordable rents, “People say, ‘I can make a go of it,’” Rafferty said.

Among other recent downtown investments, projects include:

• A $1.5 million rock-climbing gym under construction at southwest corner of West 12th and Main streets.

• The newly opened $38 million library for Vancouver Community Library on the southeast corner of C Street and Evergreen Boulevard.

• Prestige Plaza, a $12 million, four-story apartment and retail complex on the northeast corner of West 13th and C streets expected to break ground in October.

• The $700,000 renovation of a two-story foreclosure on the northeast corner of Ninth and Washington streets. Developers who carved out four ground-floor retail spaces got an art gallery, microbrewery, tattoo shop and a women’s lingerie store, along with underground parking and seven upstairs apartments.

• The $200,000 project to refurbish and reopen the historic Kiggins movie theater at 1011 Main St.

A soft reopening was held this month for the theater, which plans to take part in the upcoming Columbia Gorge International Film Festival, Aug. 10-14.

Rafferty said the evening event emphasizes the reasons outdoor lighting also will be a key component of the program to improve downtown facades.

Designs for outdoor spaces

“It’s going to take more than just paint to give it the 24-hour effect,” she said.

This spending, much of it private, could help make up for an abandoned $10 million public investment. The Main Street improvement project would have launched a major overhaul of the area’s streets, sidewalks and street lamps before it was shelved in 2008.

Instead, the city’s Clean & Safe program will match applicants with up to $20,000 to improve the facades of their buildings with paint, exterior fix-ups and lighting to make entrances and walkways inviting. For their part, the property owners are only required to pay back half of the money as a low-interest loan, Rafferty said.

The facade program’s project area extends from Fifth Street north to 11th Street along Washington, Main and Broadway. Rafferty expects the focus area projects to spread to other parts of downtown Vancouver.

“Why that area? Because we have already invested in that area,” she said. “If we can get the downtown core consistently vibrant from block to block, then the outer areas will also benefit.”